Does Community Live on a Spectrum?

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The word community is thrown around a lot.  If you ask 100 people what community is you’ll likely get 100 different answers.

In the context of business the term community is used a lot to describe a lot of things. I’ve talked many times about the difference between an audience and a community. I’m often the first to call someone out when I feel they’re calling something a community that isn’t.

Where the lines get blurry is when you have a group of people who are interacting on an ongoing basis, but aren’t really forming any relationships, a sense of belonging or a sense of identity.

Without these things, is a group truly a community? A lot of people try to draw a line in the sand and see it as a yes or no situation. I myself have looked at it as black and white many times.

But maybe that’s not right. Maybe it isn’t such a clear distinction.

Maybe Community Lives on a Spectrum

If that’s true, it’s less about what is or isn’t a community and more about the level of community that a group is experiencing.

Consider a few scenarios:

  • Say you have a group of people who have a common interest but aren’t interacting, forming relationships, feeling a sense of belonging and have no shared identity as part of the group, then it is a weak community.
  • Say you have a group of people who have a common interest and are interacting and helping each other, but the community feels purely transactional and there’s little sense of belonging and identity, perhaps it’s still a community, just not a very strong one. 
  • Say you have a group of people who do feel a sense of belonging and shared identity, and are clearly exhibiting all the elements of a sense of community, then you have a strong community.

Let’s Look at it in the Business Context

There are a lot of companies who use the word community in many different ways. We often tell them they’re wrong, that what they have isn’t community at all. But maybe they do have a community, it’s just a really weak one.

Let’s take a few scenarios again:

  • Say you have a blog and newsletter with a lot of followers but none of those people are interacting with each other or feeling a sense of belonging. You have a very weak community. 
  • Say you have a support form where members are actively helping each other and answering questions, but they don’t really feel a strong sense of belonging or identity, then the community is mainly transactional. It’s a weak community. Still a community, just not a super strong one.
  • Say you have a group of customers who regularly meet up with each other for events, who identity as a member of the group or as a lover of the brand and who feel a strong sense of belonging amongst the group. You have a strong community.

Inactive vs Transactional vs Emotional 

If I could simplify the spectrum into three distinct, this would be it.

1. Inactive: No interaction, only consuming (aka an audience)

2. Transactional: Interaction for extrinsic value

3. Emotional: Interaction for intrinsic value

If you have a lot of people listening to you but they aren’t interacting with each other at all, what you have is an inactive community. The good news is, communities are built on trust and influence, and if they’re listening to you that means they have some level of trust. So this can be the start of a community.

There are a lot of business support forums, groups and events that are much more transactional than emotional. The members are there mostly to get the value they need, like an answer to a question or an introduction, and then they leave. They don’t form any bonds with other members.

That’s okay! It’s still super valuable and can create a lot of value for both members and the company.

The thing is they typically aren’t very sustainable, take a lot of facilitation and the value stops at the extrinsic level. Members haven’t adopted a social identity, so they won’t be motivated to improve or grow the community.

Then there are some businesses who have been able to built a community on the emotional level. In this case, members are getting the transactional, or extrinsic value, but they’re also getting something much more valuable, a strong sense of belonging.

It’s these communities that can last for decades. It’s these communities that make people not just like a brand, not just love a brand but actually integrate the brand into their identity.

In any strong, truly successful community, you’ll see that value exchange. There are the common examples of this like Apple and Harley Davidson whose success can largely be attributed to their ability to form a sense of identity around their brand and mission. There are also less talked about examples like Yelp, who formed the Yelp Elite to unite and reward their most loyal contributors. The core members of Reddit identify so strongly with the community that they’ve stuck around for years and there’s an extreme emotional reaction when the culture is threatened.

Here’s another mind blower…

Every Healthy Community Usually Has all Three Levels!

There’s almost always a core group of people who feel a strong sense of belonging and are highly committed to the community. Then there’s a middle layer of people who are participating and may feel like they’re a part of the group, but not as strongly. Then there’s an outside layer of people who are just consuming, not really participating and are largely inactive.

And they’re all part of the process. You need to get people to listen to you in order for them to know about the community in the first place. Then you need transactional, or extrinsic value, to convince them to join. And only after they’ve joined can they start to form a sense of shared identity and feel a sense of belonging.

To visualize it, every community looks something like this.

Should the ultimate goal for every business be to build a community that reaches the emotional level? I’m not sure. I think a lot will strop at the transactional level and be happy with that. But they’re missing out on a lot of value.

  • Drew Meyers

    For a future blog post, I’d love to see a detailed comparison between:

    • David Spinks

      Interesting topic. Do you think it’s just differing opinions of semantics?

      • Drew Meyers

        Yes, potentially. I think if “everything is a community of varying strength”, then the word community doesn’t really mean anything.